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Towards a more tolerant, more inclusive Church

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Near the end of this month, Pope Francis will make his first pastoral visit to the United States. It’s a trip where he will undoubtedly continue to tout the declaration that this be a Year of Mercy. His choosing to avoid the trappings of the papacy and directly interact with the people have brought new life to the church, making him very popular amongst its global membership. While this was something his predecessor seemingly failed to accomplish, it would be unfair to compare the two as Benedict XVI was admittedly more adept towards preaching catechism than engaging in outreach.

I still remember when the former Holy Father, John Paul II, visited Trinidad in February 1985. In preparation for his arrival, my primary school classmates and I received an age-appropriate explanation as to what his office and the Vatican meant to our religion. Seeing the Pope had a profound effect on me, resulting in a lifelong fascination with the history of the Holy See. While such learning has not granted me a better understanding of God, it has enabled me to have a greater appreciation of the origin and legacy of the Roman Catholic Church. 

There is the perspective that when it comes to ecclesiastical matters, change doesn’t happen in years, but centuries; it is a tediously slow process. But Francis’ announcements regarding the Church’s new position on crucial issues like homosexuality, abortion and annulments, have highlighted the ever-evolving nature of its institutions. 

It must be kept in mind, however, that these are only guidelines for parishes to follow, and that despite the “relaxing” of rules, official policy remains the same. So while this attempt to stop the alienation is a step in the right direction, many see it as not going far or fast enough as they would like.

The last major revision of its doctrine occurred during the Second Vatican Council held from 1962 to 1965. For those of us born after said event, we can’t fathom the significance it played in shaping the practice of modern-day Catholicism; the Church as it is now is all we have ever known. But while it, along with the other major religions have remained steadfast in their teachings, the world has changed. And more often than not, what may be perceived as new societal norms exist in complete contrast to those traditions. 

In the meantime, legal and constitutional frameworks, especially in developed countries, are gradually expanding their scope of accommodation to ensure that all citizens, regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, or otherwise, are afforded both equal rights and protection under the law. Take Ireland for example, a country so Catholic that at one time its major export was members of the clergy. When its population recently voted in favour on a referendum to legalise same-sex unions, it was an unexpected outcome that shocked the Roman Curia.

I imagine it must be spiritually trying for those among us who are in such a position—to have no evil in their hearts and yet are considered to be living in sin. It’s the proverbial “caught between a rock and hard place” situation, where being true to one’s self puts an individual in conflict with their faith. A tenet all religions seem to agree on is the importance of fellowship in the community. The focus should remain on expressing goodwill towards each other instead of offering self-righteous criticisms. Let us therefore leave judgment and the dispensation of justice to the purview of the Divine. 

As the 266th Roman Pontiff, Francis is a worthy successor to the Throne of St Peter. Hopefully his message of humility and inclusion will spread beyond the world’s one billion Catholics. It is premature to speculate on the long-term effects his reforms will have, but he is laying the foundation for a possibly more tolerant, more inclusive, Church. Though our generation has grown accustomed to instant gratification, we must nonetheless be patient and trust that things will continue to unfold as they should. Rome, after all, wasn’t built in a day. 


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